There’s been a seismic shift in access to information since I first did serious research on my Great Grandmother, Emily Hoppin, almost 25 years ago. Back then (before Internet, mind you) I had to travel to Woodland to do on-site research in the Yolo County Archives – a small building in an industrial section of town. When I found a newspaper article I wanted to copy of my gold-rush era ancestor, the kindly woman held a column-wide copier over the paper, and reproduced the article in that filmy fax-type paper (print is faded and useless today)
I’ve also relied on my Great-Grandmother’s scrapbook (patented in 1873 by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain) that contains her pasted newspaper clippings of family deaths, her speeches, and the hot political contest for President of Federation of Women’s Clubs of California (which she won -1915). Someday, I’ll make it part of Woodland’s historical archives.
I’ve found Ancestry.com helpful for locating records of births, deaths and census reports. Interesting to see who else was living on the farm.
But recently Stephanie Korney, a friend and a founder of the Camptonville Historical Society, emailed me an article about my Great Grandmother from the 1915 Overland Journal. (Stephanie said after seeing my blog, she just couldn’t help digging around herself!) I thought I’d seen most things printed on my ancestors, but here was an article filled with delicious details about this woman. Wow! Made Facebook look pale!
In the last 25 years, the Internet has democratized access to information. Google Books, a service from Google Inc. scans the full text of books and old magazines, converts text using optical character recognition, and stores it in its digital database. There’s been a lot of controversy over copyright issues and fair use. That aside, I’m delighted to be able to search for Emily Hoppin, Yolo, California and find 30 sources of information on her. I’ll put some on my website, and some of it will be incorporated into The Desk as a backdrop for Eliza, the fictionalized woman inspired by my Great-Grandmother’s life work for California, Women’s Suffrage, Temperance, Water, Farming and hopes for Universal Peace.
“Is there a real desk?” I‘m often asked. After all, it’s one of the main characters in my novel.
The answer is yes, it sits by the window in my writing studio. And yes, it’s a family heirloom, but I don’t know how far back it goes. Like other family ancestors and future descendants, it’s an inspiration.
For your enjoyment, here’s an excerpt from The Desk, where it first appears in Christie’s life – the present time narrator whose nights have been haunted ever since inheriting the desk.
(Still a draft, so your comments are welcome!)
2010, Sierra Nevada Homestead
I shove the comforter onto my husband’s side and slide off the edge of the bed, angry and desperate in what is now my sixth sleepless night. Feeling my way down the dark hallway, I stop in the doorway of my studio. A sliver of moonlight hesitating behind the shadowed curtains catches my eye.
“What is it?” I ask the darkness.
In the corner is the dim form of a small oak desk huddled beneath the weathered windowsill. It seems frail, frightened even. I step closer.
“You’ve got something to do with this. I can feel it.”
As if summoned, I pull out my old needlepoint chair with the sagging center, and sit. I run my hands along the desktop. It’s a simple, straightforward little desk, hardly two by three feet on top. The three vertical slats down each side are spanned by a narrow shelf beneath, a foot above the ground. It was made without nails, held together by the clasped hands of tongue and grove construction.
My sister had recently offered this odd piece of family furniture to me, releasing it from years of exile in her basement.
“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation. There’d be some place for it in my already crowded home. It wasn’t a notable piece but I didn’t want it to leave the family. I rub the musty top in slow, circular motions while I think.
Beneath the desktop, I find a small drawer that slides out reluctantly. Someone had covered the bottom of the drawer with ugly blue and white grid contact paper – a relic of the ‘60’s. A small edge is pulled back. Along the front, the narrow tray for pens is stained with black and blue splotches. A small heart had been carved in the front corner of the desktop, and a circular watermark marred the back left corner where a hot drink had been carelessly placed. Two of the legs have small, teeth-like gashes at the base. Although the oak grain may once have been polished into a deep gloss, along the way, dust had settled into the small grooves, leaving a feeling of tired brittleness.
“Did I forget to welcome you home?” I exhale and look around, aware that I’m now conversing with a desk.
“This is my studio. I write here.” I point across the room to the computer table against the south window. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I describe the stacks of reference books, the watercolor sketches of ospreys, owls and lizards taped to the curtains, the photos of husband and grandchildren tucked around the printer, boxes of upright pens and watercolor pencils, and my thirty-year-old prayer plant.
“I’m working on an article about the up-slope migration of flora and fauna in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It’s due in two days and now the editor wants more facts to support climate change. I know he’s being pressured, but I’m about to tell him to shove it.”
“And. . . I hardly need another desk,” I continue, feeling irritated and wishing I hadn’t been so quick to take it. “But family’s family.” I think about the photograph of my mother as a young wife in the 1940’s, sitting at this very desk with the mouthpiece of a heavy black telephone to her ear. She never talked about the desk or who had it before her, even though she knew I was passionate about our family’s history.
I reach over to the bookcase that the desk is now squeezed against, and gently tap the frayed binding of my great-grandmother’s scrapbook stuffed with tattered, yellowed news clippings of her speeches. My hand brushes over the tops of faded leather editions of Emerson, Cooper, Longfellow, and Thoreau, all inherited from my grandmother’s library. A thin hand-printed book of great-grandfather’s letters home from the Gold Rush is lying face down on the shelf. I tuck it back into place with a smile.
“You should feel right at home. You’re surrounded by family.”
Four chimes reverberate from Grandfather clock in the hallway and I sigh. Another lost night.
“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I really need to get some sleep. I’ve mountains of work before Tuesday’s deadline.” I push the chair back against the desk. “Try listening to the ticking in the hallway,” I say, thinking of the wind-up alarm clock we used to put in our puppy’s bed. I give the desk a pat, then head back to curl up next my husband’s warm body.
“I mean it,” I whisper. “I desperately need some deep sleep.”
The next morning I awaken at nine, exhausted. I toss my favorite purple shawl around my shoulders and start my morning routine with toast and coffee. I’m usually perked up by the anticipation of freshly ground French roast, but this morning even the coffee seems lifeless. I plod my way upstairs to my studio and place the plate of buttered sourdough toast and mug of black coffee on the little desk by the window. I’m glad my husband has already left for work. On days like this I’ve learned it’s just better to stay away from people.
I’m there in time to watch the first rays of light cascade through the west facing window, illuminating a path across the top of the desk. It’s my favorite time of day and today especially, I need the reprieve before facing the work ahead. As if on cue, Buddy sniffs me out and with tail thumping, positions himself at my side to catch the last bite of toast – a routine we’ve developed over the years that is both annoying and tender.
The morning sun moves imperceptibly across the dull brown striations of oak grain as I start my morning meditation. But today I am distracted by the drifting light – the turning of the earth – the turning of time, I remind myself. I struggle to focus on my breath – in and out, in and out. The hallway clock accompanies me with a steady tick, tock, tick tock, its pendulum sweeping each second into the past. Last night’s voices hover at the edge, demanding my attention.
Then, from that still space that has eluded me all week, I sense a voice of remarkable clarity.
The sun pauses at the edge. Dust motes are suspended in mid-air.
“Don’t do this to me,” I say. “I don’t have time.” But my hands are already reaching under the drawer to slide it open. My fingers feel along the bottom and lift out a forest green leather notebook. I watch my palms press the blank pages open against the oak desktop, then lift the black filigree pen from its tray. Though my hand trembles, the voices are calm.
Do we have the ability to influence our ancestors? Or our future descendants? On a restless night several years ago, I found these thoughts changing the course of my novel.
I started out inspired to write about my Great Grandmother Emily who settled during the 1849 Gold Rush in the Sacramento Valley. But I didn’t want to write yet another biography of a head-strong, determined western woman. The book shelf’s already full of those! So I stepped back to look at the larger landscape.
Of course…we’re all spirit, and if time transcends the here and now, we all have access to each other’s lives. What if I could slip back into my great-grandmother’s life and tell her what she’d need to know that might ward off future ecological devastation? Or hear my great-granddaughter imploring me to build now what she’d need to survive when she returns to our abandoned homestead in the far future?
And what if we’re all connected by the vision of an ancient woman of wisdom who saw it all? Shima’a found a portal that transcended time. From the heartwood of an oak tree (that as an acorn grew from her heart when she died), a small oak writing desk became her means of inspiring women to gather their power and create new ways of living together. The old, aggressive masculine constructs have run their course. If earth and humanity are to survive, the feminine has to ascend.
It’s five in the morning and this is my first entry. It’s also the dark of night, my best time for writing. Like slipping between the covers of dreamtime and daylight – a very thin space where the two relax into each other and birth words that neither could have done alone.
What will you find on these pages? You’re probably as curious as I am. If you know me personally, you may have come here as a friend to touch base, see what’s up. Or you may be someone who’s heard about my novel-in-progress, The Desk, or have read sections from it and return to feel its texture. I was approached recently by two casual acquaintances who asked when the book would be ready. They wanted to read more. Derelyn and Michelle, this blog’s for you!
I anticipate this blog will be my way of telling a fuller story. Originally, my novel was just that – a historical fantasy of what it might have been like to have lived my Great-Grandmother Emily Hoppin’s life. Though I never met her, she’s my family heroine – arriving in California soon after the 1849 Gold Rush, settling in the small farming town of Yolo near Sacramento. Emily was widely known as a woman of principal whose articulate words, both written and spoken, influenced the future of women and the land in turn-of-the-century California. I have her scrapbook filled with speeches and newspaper articles about her. I feel her in my blood.
In future blogs, I’ll describe how her personal life morphed into a fictional story, then morphed again into a fantasy that spans three generations of women, all interconnected by a secret held within the family desk. Present, past and future, if you will.
This blog is my three-dimensional tic-tac-toe game where I can play with time, history (real and imagined) and see the world as it could be.
If you’re interested in History, there will be sections on early California. Geneology? I’ll post what I have about the real lives my book is based on. California Landscape: I’ll have photos and descriptions of nature’s wonders and their changes over time. Concern for the Future: I’ll not only describe my own impressions, but will link to other projections of where the earth is headed based on our past and current practices. Collective Power of the Feminine: Here’s a place where I take heart that the growing bonds of feminine (not just women’s) energy will bring a powerful caring and protection for our earth. And last, Creative Writing. I’ll include sections of The Desk and write about how I pull all this together.
I’m looking forward to your feedback – tell me what works for you, suggest nooks and crannies to explore, share your own thinking and keep me moving forward!